The Best Bad Things
Genres: Historical Fiction / Mystery
Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: November 6th 2018 by Farrar Straus and Giroux
Alma Rosales is on the hunt for stolen opium. Trained in espionage by the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency—but dismissed for bad behavior and a penchant for going undercover as a man—Alma now works for Delphine Beaumond, her former lover and the seductive mastermind of a West Coast smuggling ring.
When product goes missing at their Washington Territory outpost, Alma is offered a promotion if she can track the thief and recover the drugs. In disguise as the scrappy dockworker Jack Camp, this should be easy—once she muscles her way into the organization and wins the trust of the local boss and his boys, all while keeping them from uncovering her secrets. Her identity is not all she’s hiding: At the same time she’s searching for the missing opium, Alma is sending coded dispatches to the Pinkerton’s agents detailing the smuggling ring’s operations.
As the sailors tell it, Port Townsend is just five miles from hell. Which suits Alma fine. It’s the perfect setting for her game of aliases and double-crosses. But it’s getting harder and harder to keep her cover stories straight. And to know who to trust. One wrong move and she could be unmasked: as a woman, as a traitor, or as a spy.
A twisting and propulsive historical crime story, ipher introduces Katrina Carrasco as a major new voice in fiction.
*Trigger Warning, book contains very explicit content and violence.*
Inspired by one of the busiest seaports on the West Coast in the US, Townsend was a well-documented hot spot for smuggling in the late 1880’s. This makes it a perfect setting for a historical fiction novel with such a daring plot. Amidst the dirt of the trade, the characters are edgy, the scenes are explicit and the atmosphere reeks of dark, pungent alleys, infused with betrayal, espionage and murder.
From the Author’s Note:
San Francisco Chronicle, 1893:
“The opium ring of the Northwest is a fearful, shadowy, impalpable something; shadowy in form, but most substantial in fact. It makes its presence known, yet it’s itself unknown. The subordinate members obey a system… [Directed by] some prominent citizen whose reputation in the commercial and social world is untainted….[U.S. government agents] are baffled and, watch as they will, they cannot find evidence enough to bring this man to justice.“
The first thing that stood out to me was the writing in this novel. It is razor sharp, undoubtedly descriptive to please the senses, and witty.
“Outside, everything feels tight and shiny, crowded with energy. Frost gilds the thrumming boardwalk. Candy-colored lanterns light the crowded mouths of pleasure houses. A saloon rattles with shouts and melodeon’s groaning.”
– Katrina Carrasco
“Green reek of kelp. Ship rigging rattles fifty feet out in the bay. She weaves through Lower Town, its shingles and piers coating the peninsula’s shore like a barnacle cluster. The road is humped with piled wooden crates and construction gear. The foundry’s furnaces suffuse the air with char.”
- Katrina Carrasco
Alma Rosales, the main character in this novel, goes undercover as Jack Camp, a dockworker. And she likes it too. Working for Delphine Beaumond, her former lover, she digs deep into the dark on goings in Port Townsend leaving no alley upturned in her craft. This role fits her well as she is trained in knifing, backstabbing plotting and…killing. Her role as Jack Camp, becomes her second skin. A role that also infuses her with desires and appetite.
“To lacquer on manhood, Alma starts with the hands. Gentlemen wear rings. A working man wears calluses. He leaves dirty fingerprints on newspapers, drops peanut shells in his path. His nails may or may not be bitten. In winter his knuckles crack with cold.”
- Katrina Carrasco
“Alma rakes her teeth over her lower lip. She is itching to see Nell, her body primed by the brawl. It’s a long-ingrained habit: fighting, then f…ing.”
- Katrina Carrasco
It does not take her long to figure out who is moving product and making the big bucks. The questions is, how? When some of the key players fall out of the game, it requires her to change tactic and establish alibies. As Jack Camp gets into brawls with henchmen and other interest groups, he almost bites the dust. Fueled with anger, can he frame the right person for the gain of his employer? Will Alma’s liking for certain characters jeopardize her decisions? Or is Jack Camp ultimately the pawn that’s at stake in this race to sell more opiates?
Alma’s bisexual character hovers between two identities, a first for me in a historical fiction novel.
“She is being two things at once. Grinning hard like Camp, chin up like Camp. She is in the gray space between identities and he sees her and she is lit up, spark filled, starving.”
- Katrina Carrasco
The title The Best Bad Things may elude to the power or the struggle of the character’s identity or what may be perceived as flaws during the 1880’s, but I cannot say for sure. It seems to me that Alma is more comfortable with herself then it is deemed proper in society at the time. She is actually rather full of vigor and zest spurred by her youth and desires for men and woman. She is confident in the moment when these strike. What I cannot emulate is that the explicit scenes are often a reaction to violent acts.
What I foremost enjoyed in this book is the striking, vivid writing. Although not consistently strong at all times, it is a whirlwind of a read. One is thrown right into the action and it almost never stops. This perhaps came at the expense of the character development as I would have liked to connect more with the main characters, but not much of tangible background was revealed; leaving all the big players somewhat two dimensional for my taste.
The scheme of the plot was brilliant and ever changing. As a reader it requires full attention to keep up with the cast and subplots. I may have missed a few things here and there, as it seems that at every page turn a different back-stab was lurking. Rereading some parts I highlighted with notes for this review made me dive right back and gain appreciation for different scenes of the action as it all came together at the end. Reading the epilogue again after the book, makes all sense now and is superbly befitting.
This book is definitely for the mature audience and those attracted to historical settings. The heroine was strong, clever and refreshing. Her indomitable spirit was unstoppable.
I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange of an honest review. All opinions are my own. Thank you!